Jemin had done just fine without us. When we found him, he was in the midst of tying the soldiers together. One of the lamps was still lit, sitting on the ground and casting a small pool of golden light. Jemin stopped and drew his sword when he heard the horses, but then relaxed when he saw Quill and me.
“You’re alright,” he said, openly relieved.
I nodded. “Thanks to Quill.”
Jemin sheathed his sword and knelt to finish tying the soldiers. The Nether Queen’s men were both banged up, but neither looked fatally wounded. They watched us sullenly while Jemin worked. One of them sneered, “You’re the rebels from the forges, aren’t you? Same dark armor.”
From behind them, Jemin’s eyes flicked up to Quill’s. What would happen if Dalyn was implicated too soon? I saw Jemin start reaching for his sword again.
“Galhara’s revenge is only beginning,” I addressed the soldiers, my voice low with authority. I sensed Quill’s and Jemin’s eyes on me, but I ignored them and looked down on the bound soldiers. “The Nether Queen will long rue the day she took my city.” I held their gaze coldly, letting them absorb that they were my prisoners now. As fear began to creep into their faces Jemin clubbed them with the pommel of his sword and they both slumped to the ground unconscious.
“We should go,” said Quill.
“Would you have killed them?” I asked, as Jemin mounted Sinker.
Both men looked grim.
“Will your father approve of Galhara’s role as instigator?” asked Quill after a pause.
“You needed one,” I retorted as he turned his mount and led the way into the dark forest.
We moved at a conservative pace, even once we grew accustomed to the dark. Aiming south and east we rejoined the Cymerie far enough downstream from the bridge that we couldn’t see torches or hear voices carried on the river’s roar. We stuck as close to the river as we could, but the banks were steep, and the land was rough. Frequently we had to retreat into the forest to get around steep or rocky hillocks. It was slow going, especially in the dark. Also, the further we traveled, the more I hurt. My face and arms ached worst, and exhaustion began to drag at my consciousness. I struggled to pay attention to the forest, and keep watch for sign of either the carriage or pursuing soldiers. There was, after all, a chance that soldiers from the road had had the presence of mind to chase the carriage from the river bank. But we didn’t know if they had because Quill and Jemin hadn’t stuck around to watch. They had rushed to save me; I could hardly hold that against them.
I didn’t argue when Quill called a halt. He and Jemin dismounted, and started spreading bedrolls by a huge fallen tree. I sat mutely on Hook trying to work up the strength to slide off. Quill came over and offered me a hand down. I took the bedroll he handed me and while he untacked Hook I spread the thick cloth between Quill’s and Jemin’s, the customary place for a noble with bodyguards. Also, the warmest. Perhaps it was presumptuous, but I was too tired to care. I drifted to sleep almost as soon as I lay down.
When I awoke the forest was gray with dawn. Jemin was already strapping his bedroll to Sinker, and Quill was walking toward me as if to wake me.
He smiled when he saw me moving. “Glad to see you’re awake; we need to go.”
I got up stiffly and rolled up the bedroll. I was cold. Water and a little dried meat saw us on the move again. The sun rose higher turning gray dawn to gold morning. Eventually I started to feel awake and wonder why we hadn’t met the others yet. We had been riding a couple of hours when we came to a flat space on the river shore and saw the large silhouette of an overturned carriage. My heart leapt. I urged Hook into a canter.
“Wait!” Quill called, and I ignored him.
In a few short strides we reached the carriage and circled it. It was roughed up—the wheels smashed off, the axles and shaft were long gone. Gouges stood out pale against the dark sides. It was empty. My heart thundered in my chest. Jumping off Hook I turned to the river, “What have you done with them?” I demanded.
Quill and Jemin cantered up and dismounted. I was vaguely aware of Jemin stooping to inspect the ground while Quill followed me as I headed for the water. I reached the river and waded in just as Quill arrived and grabbed my elbow. “Zare, don’t do anything stupid.”
“Where is my family?” Angrily I spun to face him—uncertain if I was asking him or the Cymerie. The current was strong, and I could feel it tugging at my feet, even though I wasn’t even up to my knees.
Quill didn’t let go, “The carriage is empty but fairly intact, they probably got out here and moved on to a safer place.” His eyes flicked from mine to the water swirling around us. “Do not accuse the river of anything yet.”
At least not while I’m standing in it, is what he didn’t say. Being as it was an ill-tempered river. Reluctantly I yielded to Quill’s tugging and waded back to the shore. The water held onto us, like the river was loath to let us leave. I looked distrustfully at her, but Quill put his arm around my shoulders and steered me back to the carriage.
Jemin stood waiting for us.
“Anything?” asked Quill.
“There are tracks,” Jemin nodded downriver. “Lots of tracks all over this area, but a trail leaves following the river.”
I inspected the carriage again. While the outside was clearly pummeled, Quill was right; the inner body was pretty well preserved. I turned back to Quill and Jemin, “More riding?” I asked.
We remounted and Jemin took the lead. We plodded over the rough land while Jemin paused now and then to stare at the ground or bushes. I felt myself swinging between weariness, impatience, and indifference, and endeavored to contain my unruly emotions. We would find my family. Everyone was fine, and they were with Dalyn’s soldiers. We would find them.